Women’s contribution to science is everywhere

The history of women in science is impressive. We just forget to look for it

L’Oréal Prize for women in science awards

Last Sunday was International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day created by the UN to celebrate the achievements of women and girls in a field historically dominated by men. According to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres “We need to encourage and support girls and women achieve their full potential as scientific researchers and innovators”. But how well are Oxford doing at this?

I study chemistry at Hertford, a degree with one of the highest numbers of contact hours possible at Oxford. I’m the only girl reading chemistry in my year. Doing 25 hours of chemistry a week with only four boys to keep me company is a daily battle.
I walk along Robinson Close every day, a road I imagine is named after Carol Robinson, not only Oxford’s first female chemistry professor, but a dame as well.

Robinson is an icon, both for women and for science. But the naming of the road is never discussed. Its name may even be a coincidence. Much like the historical achievements of women in science in general, the significance of the road name is accessible only to those who go looking for it. The majority remain unware of the road’s namesake and many of the women whose discoveries underpin our scientific knowledge today.

This is not to say women in science are not honoured at all. Behind the Oxford chemistry complex lies Dorothy Hodgkin road, clearly tied to its namesake Dorothy Hodgkin, the famous British chemist and noble prize winner. Though it’s surely an honour to have that road named after her, I feel she may be disappointed.

When her work on penicillin was published Hodgkin stated: “Today I lost my maiden name’’. She had been persuaded to use her married name when she contributed to Hans Clarke’s book the Chemistry of Penicillin, despite already being a prominent researcher. Perhaps Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin road would have been a more appropriate name.

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Nevertheless, it is an honour to walk these two roads and to work in the same labs as such pioneering women. At Hertford College, I’m lucky enough to be tutored by Professor Claire Vallance, president elect of the Faraday division of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Perhaps more important than her exhilarating teaching was the support she offered me after the tragic death of my father last October, exhibiting the human side to academia that we don’t see in research journals or in 180-person lecture theatres.

When we think about women in science we must acknowledge the wider, structural issues that form barriers to female scientists, problems that cannot be solved by individual female scientists. But we must also acknowledge the brilliant work of inspiring, individual women, who help others on their journey, often through their brilliant discoveries and academic pedigree but also sometimes through something as simple as their support – which in a field dominated by men makes all the difference.

This International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I am thankful to the pioneering woman that started our journey, to those continuing along it as we speak, and to those that are dedicated to helping and inspiring students who are just starting their journeys like me.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting read. Thank you.

    It should be noted that currently 44% UK chemistry undergrads are women. Not yet 50% but it is a vast improvement on Dorothy Hodgkin’s time (or even Claire Vallance’s!). Maybe Hertford College are a bit behind the curve.

  2. Robinson Close is named after Sir Robert Robinson the Oxford Nobel prize winning chemist.

    A little further along is Hinshelwood Road named after Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood the Oxford Nobel prize winning chemist.

  3. Robinson Close is not named after Dame Carol Robinson, but after Sir Robert Robinson, the Waynflete Professor of Chemistry…

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